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Jennifer Jernigan, Miss University of Mississippi
Challenge has become blessing
By Lucy Weber
Madison County Herald
lweber@mcherald.com

MADISON | Jennifer Jernigan knows she's facing the opportunity of a lifetime.

As Miss University, she is competing in next week's Miss Mississippi Pageant, one of 39 young women who want to win the crown and the opportunity to vie for the title of Miss America.

"I want to take it in for all it's worth," said the 20-year-old junior marketing major at the University of Mississippi. "This has been a dream of mine for a long time, and I'm getting to fulfill it.

"I remember going (to the Vicksburg pageant) and wondering if I'd ever be up there," she said. "Now, I am, and it's an amazing experience."

The Miss University Pageant in February was the first preliminary competition for the Miss Mississippi title Jernigan, a 2001 graduate of Madison Central High, had ever entered.

"I've been singing and dancing in pageants since I was 6," she said. "I entered Miss University and didn't expect to win. I couldn't have been more blessed than to have this as my first title."

Jennifer Taylor, the director of the pageant at Ole Miss, said Jernigan is "a wonderful representative for the university. I have no doubt she'll do exceptionally well in the pageant.

"In her first year, she's gone over and beyond to prepare. She has worked very, very hard to prepare for the pageant, from mock interviews to practicing her talent to practicing her walk," Taylor said. "We feel she's prepared in every possible way to represent the university.

"Our goal at the university is we would love for her to place in the Top 10."

Jernigan, the daughter of Jerolyn and Bobby Jernigan of Madison, said she intends to give her all at the pageant that ends with the winner being crowned June 28.

"I plan is to go there and do all that I can do," she said. "If it's better than everybody else, great. I'll do my best."

The Miss Mississippi title carries with it the opportunity for the winner to speak out on a special issue. Jernigan's issue is one close to her heart.

Jernigan, who was chosen as Most Beautiful at Ole Miss over 91 other contestants, was born missing most of her right hand.

"When I was 10, I met a little girl, who was 4 who had a hand like mine," Jernigan said. "I was able to sit down with her and help her gain self-esteem."

Singing and dancing helped Jernigan overcome any shyness or timidness about her birth defect, she said.

Jernigan hopes to help other children with birth defects with their self-esteem and build awareness in others that these children aren't limited by a physical disability.

"All through high school and junior high, I looked to find avenues to reach these children," she said.

By devoting her reign as Miss Mississippi to O.D.D.S. (Overcoming Defects and Differences Through Self-Esteem), Jernigan said she could reach a much broader audience.

"It's funny how you win a title and doors open to you, rather than your having to run them down," she said.

Her birth defect has urged her to succeed, Jernigan said. "It's a proven fact that a person with a disability will try harder.

"I don't even think I'd be in Miss Mississippi if I didn't have a birth defect," she said. "It has given me that drive, and a platform that I'm so passionate about. I've been given this challenge, but I've been able to turn it into a blessing."

But, Jernigan said there are other aspects to her personality that she wants the pageant judges to see in her.

Having taken voice lessons since she was 6, Jernigan will display her vocal talents during preliminary competition Wednesday night. She will sing "With One Look" from the musical "Sunset Boulevard."

"It's a different style for me," she said. "It works my upper range.

"I'm almost more comfortable on stage than in real life," she said. "I can get up in front of thousands of people all day long. Singing is my passion."

Jernigan began working for the Miss Mississippi Pageant the day after she won the Miss University title.

The Ole Miss community pitched in to get her ready. University professors, administrators and students posed questions to Jernigan during dozens of mock interviews.

The private 12-minute interview with judges counts for 40 percent of the total score.

"I feel I'm as prepared as I can get," she said. "I feel I've done all I can do."

Jernigan said she's looking forward to the hard work next week.

"It'll be fun. I don't see how you can put 39 girls in one place and not have fun," she said.

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